Olalla author Gregg Olsen’s first novel has the same tone and subject matter as his eight true crime books, but the ability to control the plot allowed him a new freedom.
“Real life is messy,” Olsen said. “Writing true crime forces me to stick to what actually happened. Writing fiction allows me to tie up all the loose ends.”
“A Wicked Snow” tells the story of a modern woman whose mother was a notorious serial killer, long presumed dead. The woman has managed to keep her sordid past a secret to all but her family, but it soon appears that her mother may still be alive and has returned to haunt her.
The novel is based on a true story filtered through Olsen’s imagination. While researching “Starvation Heights,” about an early 20th century serial killer, Olsen heard of a woman named Belle Gunneth who lured men to her farm with a promise of work. After killing several of these men she became a notorious fugitive, with “Gunneth sightings” continuing well into the 1930s.
Olsen brought the idea into modern times, recasting the story from the viewpoint of a daughter who witnessed (and has now suppressed) the crimes. Her mother’s re-emergence prompts her to contact the FBI agent who worked the original case, Special Agent Jeff Bauer.
Olsen said his hero’s resemblance to the TV cop of nearly the same name is a coincidence.
“I’ve never watched ‘24,’” he said. “I heard about Jack Bauer, but decided not to change the name.”
“A Wicked Snow” is the first in a three-book deal. Olsen has already finished the second, “An Evil Wind.” The books will be released a year apart and will not feature recurring characters. The books are all paperback originals, bypassing the competitive hardcover market and heading directly into mass circulation. The books are part of an increasingly popular publishing subcategory called “serial killer thriller.” While readers lap up these books at an alarming rate they have little to do with reality. True serial killers, Olsen said, are a very rare breed.
While the subject matter is similar, readers have different reactions to fiction and nonfiction. “Some mystery readers turn up their nose at true crime,” he said. ”And then there are people who love to read about Jeffery Dahmer but can’t stomach fictional versions of the same crimes.”
Olsen declines to supply specific numbers, only that the paperbacks’ press runs well beyond the 24,000 copies projected for his upcoming hardcover.
When writing fiction Olsen tries to write 1,000 words a day, finishing a book in about six months. True crime books take about two years to research and write.
Olsen’s next (as yet untitled) true crime book tells the story of Bainbridge Island minister Nicholas Hacheney, who was convicted of killing his wife. Olsen has already talked to Hacheney and has interviewed many of the principals.
“I’d rather hear people tell me what happened than get it from the court records,” Olsen said. “I tell them that they may not like what I write, but they will recognize what they told me when the book is published.”
Olsen, 48, has lived in Olalla for about 12 years. His wife is a graphic artist, and his twin daughters are scheduled to graduate from college this year.
“A Wicked Snow” boasts a cover blurb from British mystery author Lee Child, who writes the popular Jack Reacher series. Child actually read the manuscript and offered suggestions to improve the narrative flow.
“I wrote him and said I was a writer attempting to reinvent myself,” Olsen said. “He told me to send him the manuscript to him in France. I had never sent anything to France. Later he sent me a long e-mail and told me where I could tighten the narrative. I followed his suggestions, which made it a better book.”
Olsen expects to announce specifics for local promotional events in support of “A Wicked Snow” in the next month. For more information go to www.greggolsen.com.
Olsen will be at the Bell, Book and Candle at 2 p.m. March 3 to sign his book. The store is located at 1037 Bethel Ave., Port Orchard. For more information, call (360) 876-7500 or visit www.bethelavebook.com.